Stillwater Black came together in 1991 when Chris Thayer met Ahmed and Sam Pierstorff while playing in the pit band for a high school musical production. Issac McCorkell was quickly recruited on drums and the band recorded its first EP, The Last Virtuous Lady of Athens.

In 1995 they signed with Cleaves Entertainment, a now-defunct independent label based out of Southern California's Inland Empire. Stillwater Black recorded their debut LP, Adam. They played frequently with local and national acts including Dishwalla, Save Ferris, Reel Big Fish, and IE punk/ska mainstays, The Skeletones.

In 1997 the members parted ways and the project lay dormant for two decades.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Locked down at CIW

Today was my Johnny Cash moment. I even wore black.

The Muslim chaplain at the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Chino invited me to an event they were having at the prison. Some kind of inaugural world peace festival. I've facilitated a lot of communal drumming events as sansfife, but never at a prison. I jumped at it.

What an amazing day. After getting cleared by the staff I was led out to the yard, a large asphalt area that I marked with red here:

At least I think that was the spot. I was trying to take the whole thing in, and it was pretty overwhelming.

My chaplain friend pointed out an older woman in blue, sitting quietly in the shade, her grey hair in a loose pony tail. "Sweetest woman you'll meet. She's always so helpful."

I acknowledged her.

"Remember the Manson murders? Sharon Tate? She was there," he said.

That was either Patricia Krenwinkel or Leslie Van Houten, two of the Manson girls, both at CIW. Things were off to a pretty surreal start.

A bit further down the path we could see a number of booths set up with religious pamphlets. At one booth, a woman was demonstrating yoga poses. Everybody offered a smile and a greeting as we passed.

Approaching the yard, we could hear loud, Native American drumming and singing. It felt like any number of the pow-wows I've attended over the years. There was a huge ring of women blocking my view of the performance, but with my escort I was soon at the front of the circle.

And what I saw was beautiful and inspiring.

Various ethnic groups from among the inmates were banded together in a celebration of culture and respect. The Native American women were beating a drum and singing, while some among them did a traditional dance. Next up were the island girls, Polynesian women with tribal tattoos and red dresses patterned in white hibiscus. They sang and did a little dance with lilting wrists and gentle steps. And then the dreadlock fashion show, where women lined up on a faux catwalk behind a driving hip-hop soundtrack to show off their beautiful, twisted hair in a variety of styles.

There were freestyle rappers and poets. There were solo dancers and lots of laughs. It was like I stumbled into a huge sorority party featuring an outdoor cultural talent show. I couldn't stop smiling.

By all accounts, this was not the norm. I talked to one inmate who said that, before today, she'd never even been out on the yard, "I go to work and church and that's it. But this is beautiful."

The warden got on the mic at one point, celebrating the peace and joy of the event while acknowledging the hard work and collaboration of the inmates and staff. Lots of whoops and hollers followed her pronouncement that this might become an annual event.

My turn came and I stepped up to the microphone with a large double-headed drum slung over my shoulder. I brought out other drums and tambourines and we called some folks out of the crowd to help out. I asked the Native American women to bring their drum and join me.

We got to grooving on a very simple rhythm and I led the yard in Kumbaya. For what was now being billed as the prison's first annual Peace Festival, it seemed right.

Maybe next year it'll be Stillwater (men in) Black?

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